Double Rainbow [Part 1]
A short story about love and transcendence.
Jack looked at Elise taking a drag from the cigarette, at the way the tendrils of cool, gray smoke coiled around the curve of her lips and cheeks. The skin was slightly flushed from a night of drinking, and her hair was mussed from sweat. The surroundings were thrumming. The proximity of other people, the scent of alcohol, the drone of the overhead fans, and the multilingual utterances of the patrons. It was a bombardment of the senses, yet all Jack saw was her, in all her glory.
Had she known what he was thinking, Elise would have laughed at him for sure. The enchanting way the light hit the surface of her eyes and made the oils on her face shimmer had him fidgeting in his seat. Neither of them had talked much since coming to the noisy bar, but the two of them didn’t need words to communicate. He could tell by the way her lips curled upward cattily that she was amused by something happening behind him, and he could sense that she was growing tired by the way she leaned casually against the seat with one arm draped over the top and down the back.
Everything about the moment was perfect. Jack couldn’t ask for a better night, unless you counted what he was expecting when they got back to their hostel room. Even though the two of them were exhausted from spending the day roaming the city’s Old Town, they never lost the connection between them. They always had a desire to spend time together, to become one, fused, enmeshed, even if it was just for a second within the history of the universe. Reaching across the distance, Jack ran his fingers up her tattooed arm, admiring the silkiness of her rainbow-colored skin and the dark outlines that separated images of roses and skulls from one another.
At that, her dark eyes moved from whatever had been entertaining her imagination to his face. Into his soul. She had a fascinating way of doing that, of seeing the pieces of him that no one else could detect. Jack shivered.
Though he knew he should speak, he couldn’t articulate the words. Whether it was the alcohol finally working on his system or her beauty, he couldn’t differentiate. Sometimes, just staring at Elise long enough was enough to feel drunk or high or both. She set him alight in ways that he still didn’t comprehend three years into their relationship.
In just three short years, everything about our lives has changed, he thought while gazing into that ruby-painted smile and those onyx eyes.
“Jack?” asked Elise softly. “Are you ready to go?”
“Yeah, let’s get out of here,” he returned while giving the bartender a sidelong glance.
The man detected the unspoken request immediately and got to work with preparing the check. Despite it having been their first time to the bar, the bartender had been attentive to their needs all evening, It was more than they had gotten in their hometown, now thousands of miles away. Jack thought about the roads he had traveled solo and the ones he’d walked with Elise at his side. Every journey was a lesson, but the experiences he had with Elise had transformed his world.
Or maybe it was the world that was changing for Elise at he was just an unknowing passenger?
She had something unusual, after all. Jack had never been able to put his finger on it, but she had a strange kind of gift that made everyone around her want to be a better person, to rise above their misgivings and hardships. She did it all with just a look or a smile or a kind word. Even now, while she was somewhat tipsy and giggling at her own klutzy mannerisms, Elise was captivating him, making heat blossom in his chest.
Without her, this journey would have never started.
Without her, Jack would have never found the courage to step out from the comforts of a decent-paying job in the middle of a lackluster town.
He sometimes tried to think what life had been like before Elise appeared, but he found that everything that mattered started with her. It proved that he hadn’t been living all that much before their paths crossed. Jack paid for their drinks then took Elise by the hand to lead her from the bar. She sometimes was content with being lead, but it was usually Jack who was chasing her through crowds and down the streets of foreign cityscapes.
Tonight, Elise grabbed a hold of him with both hands. After a moment of weaving bodies and muttering apologies in a clumsy excuse for Swedish, they found themselves in the middle of the bustling downtown, neon lights brightening the cobblestones. Jack was ready to keep moving, yet Elise dug the heels of her hiking boots into the pavement.
“Can I ask you something, Jack?” she asked in that wistful and mysterious manner that drove him crazy.
He could see himself on the surface of her large eyes, all hard angles and slicked back brown hair, as he looked down at her. “Yeah, what is it?”
“Would you be able to go on without me?”
The question stunned him, as some of them usually do. Elise often asked things that made him stumble or gave him a fright, but this was the first time she had ever hinted to vanishing. How she intended to do that, and what it meant for the future he had been envisioning, were two sudden fears that knotted his stomach up tight. He unthinkingly rubbed his abdomen.
“Well I, uh, I haven’t really thought about that, Elise,” he confessed.
Rather than look at her face, he looked to the opposite wall, where a mural of a tree full of fruits had been painted above the umbrellas of an outdoor bar. Beneath the painting, people were gathered around the purple and blue canopies with drinks and food in front of them. Many were laughing, nodding their heads, and full of mirth.
Elise didn’t move, and her face was just as stony: “Answer the question.”
He felt a flicker of anger in his pretzel of a stomach at that and shot, “Really, what is with you today?”
Since the morning when they rose to start their adventures in Stockholm, Elise had been distant at times, if not downright absent. For someone who came alive in the unknown, it struck him as odd that she seemed like a shadow of herself. The alcohol had melted some of the ice around her soul, but now that they had left and were sobering up, it seemed that wall had returned stronger than before. He crossed his arms, waiting for her to give him a response.
“I’m waking up soon, I think, and I need to know if you’re going to be okay without me, because I won’t rest if I know you’re hurting,” she said, uncharacteristically cryptic.
“Of course I would hurt if you left me, Elise!” Jack noted some people giving them looks as they passed by or from where they sat at one of the many cafes. Pitching his voice slightly lower as to not be rude, he continued, “You know I can’t live without you.”
“That’s the problem, Jack. You need to.”
He shook his head, knowing that even while it made him look asinine, he needed to refute what was being said. “No, I don’t. You need to explain why you’re running all of a sudden. What did I do wrong?”
Elise’s expression slid from stoicism to pure sadness, as if it was raining down on her. She looked drenched in pain, and Jack cursed his own inability to see that something had been wrong from the moment the sun came up.
Though when I think about… No, it hadn’t just been today.
Elise, the embodiment of autumnal sunshine, had been more like a hazy summer afternoon lately. Usually, she was warming and thoughtful, full of compassion for the world around her. Then, an internal switch was flipped, transforming Elise into someone he didn’t recognize. She had been getting angrier and with less provocation. She stopped drawing her sketchbook. She would sit by windows just staring at the sky instead of reaching for it. Worst of all, she stopped telling him about her dreams.
Jack ran a hand through his hair. Why didn’t I realize it until right now? What have I been doing?
“Let’s go back to the hostel,” Elise suggested, her voice low and wavering.
Though they had booked a week at a hostel, they had decided to splurge on a double room instead of rooming with strangers. Two or three days in narrow bunk beds in cramped conditions with other travelers was tolerable, but two weeks in a hostel sharing space was asking a bit much. In silence, they road the elevator to the second to last floor of the massive hostel then disembarked. The white walls and white doors were as sterile as a hospital, and it was just as silent. Jack retrieved the card key from his back pocket to unlock the room.
Inside, there was some evidence of cleaning, such as tidied up blankets and a pine-scented toilet bowl. The two of them shucked off their clothing, aware that their eyes were on one another the entire time. Jack liked watching Elise move in the peripheral. The lines and curves of her body was a work of genetic art, but when he caught her out of the corner of his eye, there was always a new surprise. A new angle from which he could savor her figure. From what he’d gathered, Elise was as much a visual creature as he, for she often sketched nude pictures of him in her book.
Standing in front of the mirror and sink in the tiled bathroom, Jack gazed into his own brown eyes as he brushed his teeth. He bent down to spit, and when he rose, Elise was there, right behind him. Except, it also wasn’t. Her veins and pupils were faintly glowing white. The way the light branched out beneath her skin like brambles or vines, burning more hotly were the flesh was thinnest, was all at once entrancing and terrifying. Jack took this in for a few seconds before his body was able to react. He jumped with a yelp, colliding with the sink, and knocked precariously stacked toiletries across the floor. Elise didn’t even blink as her expensive moisturizer plunked onto the floor near her feet.
She took a measure step like a cat getting ready to pounce on a trapped mouse then reached out to touch his bare chest. “Jack.”
“What’s happening to you?” he asked, bewildered by the glow.
“I’m waking up.”
There was that phrase again. Jack gazed into her eyes, to where that white dwarf of her soul was burning, and sought a means to lift the truth from her core. Instead, he grabbed her by the shoulders then planted a forceful kiss on her mouth. It was indeed Elise. The smell of her skin, the taste of her lips and tongue, and even the little sigh she released when their mouths separated was undeniably the love of his life.
“I’m not going to let you go, do you hear me?” Jack whispered into her ear. Though he didn’t understand anything about what ‘waking up’ meant, he wasn’t about to comply. Not when she looked so sad. Wrapping his arms her, he added, “You’re my world.”
“And you’re mine.” The way her lips brushed against his chest made him tremble.
Jack pressed a kiss to the top of her head, breathing in the floral scent of her shampoo. Then, he guided her out the door towards their double bed by the wide window that overlooked a glittering city and indigo-colored sky. They didn’t need the light, because the luminescence of her skin was enough to burn away the night.
“I’m not letting you go,” Jack reiterated before pressing his mouth against hers.
Morning crept in, a slow yet deliberate beast. The first rays of dawn were looked upon with mixed emotions by those who were awake to meet them. Some regarded the new day in an excited manner, because it was another day to appreciate life. Others saw the commencement of today as torture, because they were the people who had nothing to look forward to. Jack had ridden in the middle ground of those two extremes his entire life, up to the point where Elise appeared. One moment, he was on top of the world, overcoming challenges with an innocent kind of eagerness he’d never outgrown. The next day, he was surly and crestfallen, for it appeared his efforts were destined to fail.
When he met Elise, though, it seemed like every morning was a fresh start. He never wanted to stay in bed if it meant getting to see her sooner than later—even when they slept together. Never did he think that he would again open his eyes and feel despair first thing in the morning. But he did.
Elise was gone.
Gasping, Jack shot a hand to the indentation that her body had left behind in the blankets, feeling for a warmth that no longer lingered there. The air in the bedroom was cool, cooler than he’d assumed, and he soon figured out why. The window was open wide. Jack threw the blankets off, calling out Elise’s name. No answer came. He rapped on the closed bathroom door, only to knock it open. The shower’s floor was dry. So, she hadn’t taken a shower. None of her belongings were missing, either. Jack doubted that she had fled in the middle of the night naked.
His eyes moved towards the window, widening. Terror was a late blooming flower, but now the blossom had spread its petals wide, and the heady pollen cloyed the air. Licking his lips, Jack took a few steps towards the window. Strength left his legs for a moment, causing him to shudder from head to toe. He took another step, then another, until he could eventually grasp hold of the chest-high ledge. Since he was able to see beyond the sill from where he stood, he pulled over one of the stools. Jack leaned out to look over the edge, feeling an instant rush.
Though his swimming vision had only caught a glimpse of what loomed below, there was no commotion. If she hadn’t left through the front door and hadn’t jumped, where had she gone?
I’m waking up.
Jack swore under his breath. What the fuck did that even mean? How could you wake up when you were already awake? His mind flashed back to the glowing veins beneath her skin and the way her eyes looked right through him, into a dimension that he couldn’t enter. The shock crashed into him like a ball on a chain. Pain burst through his shattered chest and heart into his fingertips. His hands reached up towards his face and hair to grasp at something he knew was real.
“Elise,” he whimpered. “Elise, come back.”
Tears peeked out from the corners of his eyes then made a run for it. One after one, the wetness poured down over his cheeks to drop onto his chest and the floor. Jack stumbled over to the bed, wanting to climb on top of it, but he instead took a seat on the ground. Even though he wasn’t wearing clothes, the chill in the air didn’t faze him. Right then, the only thing he felt was a crippling grief, as if his own heart had been wrenched from his chest.
“Elise.” Don’t leave me.
He thought about the first time they had met. It was midweek during springtime, right around the time the cherry trees shed their pink petals everywhere. The sky had been overcast for about a week, permitting little sunlight to shine through the cloud cover. All the streams were inundated from constant rain, and there were petals floating on the puddles that decorated the sidewalks, yards, and driveways. Jack loved that kind of weather, looking back. He loved seeing the puddles reflect the sky at just the right angle, so it looked like you could fall down through the earth into the sky on the other end.
The spring was often a time of depression, especially since that particular month he was combating sadness after a failed attempt at returning to college for the third time. The money simply wasn’t there, and he was getting worse at fooling himself into optimism about tomorrow. But whenever he saw those crystalline pools, it was like peering into a window to a happier future.
Such a setting was where he met her. It was after a rainstorm. Jack was standing in the middle of a park beneath the roiling clouds, face tilted skyward. A glimmer in the corner of his eye startled him then. Jack turned to find a young woman in a cream-colored sundress standing barefoot in an ankle-deep puddle nearby. She was breathing a little heavy, and there were streaks of moisture on her face and clothes. Her hair, a ragged pixie cut, was disheveled. Sighting something in the distance beyond him, she just stood there with a pair of flip-flops in hand.
Even when it was obvious that this woman knew he was staring, she never changed her focus.
It seemed like an eternity watching her gaze longingly into the distance, questioning who she was and why she was there out of the blue. But then he saw it on the surface of her onyx eyes. A double rainbow had formed behind him, and while he would have usually wanted to see such a phenomenon with his own eyes, seeing his silhouetted frame and the prismatic glint on the surface of those deep orbs was just too perfect. Soon, the rainbow faded as they always do, but the woman remained.
“I wasn’t expecting a pot of gold when I chased that rainbow,” she said with a small smile.
Jack didn’t understand what she’d meant at first. “Sorry?”
“You. You’re the pot of gold.”
Since childhood, he had never been the kind of person to meet someone’s gaze to ask a question or assert his own opinion. Until now. He shook his head and replied, “You sure you’re not the treasure instead?”
That coy smile widened, revealing a line of white teeth. Jack watched as she raked some strands of hair behind an ear. Then she stepped from the water, shaking her feet like a feline for a moment, before slipping on her pair of black flip-flops. She asked him if he wanted to join her for some ice cream.
Later, he asked for her name. It was Elise.
However long he had spent curled up in the artificial nighttime of that hotel room eluded him. It could have been minutes or several days. Jack stared into the ceiling relentlessly, unable to summon up a willingness to move. Sounds from the outside world pervaded the space, even with a shut window and closed door tagged with a Do Not Disturb sign. He heard people laughing in the other guest rooms, gulls cackling manically, the sighs of cars passing over pavement, but he didn’t want to be a part of that world. Rubbing his bloodshot eyes with his knuckles squeezed out the dregs of tears clinging to the corners. He blew air out forcefully and let his body deflate.
A subtle sound, like a knock on the door, cut his exhalation short. Jack stiffened as he pondered if housekeeping was ignoring the sign and had come to tidy up.
The sound belonged to someone else—someone who should’ve never been in his room to begin with. Jack sighted the man in his ivory-colored suit and lightly phosphorescent skin and orbs leaning nonchalantly against the wall before letting out a shocked scream.
The man grinned then commented in an accented voice, “Good heavens. Awfully jumpy, aren’t we?”
There was more than enough reasons to be alarmed, Jack thought. First, he was utterly beside himself with Elise gone. Second, he hadn’t gotten dressed and had been laying on the bed naked. In a frenetic scramble, Jack yanked blankets onto his lap while fighting with the charging cords that dangled from the electric outlet on the wall just above his pillow. Something hard banged against the wall. His phone. And Elise’s. Jack felt that same distraught pang from earlier, momentarily. Bringing his attention back to the stranger in the hostel, he wondered what the hell was going on.
Elise had the same glow.
On this man, though, it looked more like circuitry, and that was where similarities ended. The stranger had shorn platinum hair, icy blue irises, alabaster skin, and was about a head taller than Jack. The suit he wore looked expensive, what with the velveteen lapels and elegant stitching, but Jack had never been one for formal or business attire, so his visual appraisal was useless. Nonetheless, the man’s appearance was a cross between hitman and entertainer. No wonder Jack was jittery.
“Who are you?” he eventually asked.
“Someone who wants to help,” the stranger responded, taking another step closer to the bed.
Jack raised a hand and stopped the man from getting nearer. “Stay back. What do you mean you want to help?”
“Elise sent me. She can’t come back for you, not now. Unfortunately, time isn’t on your side, either. So, here I am, a reluctant recruit in your ascension. Be grateful,” responded the man.
With that kind of snide tone, there was no way in hell Jack would be thanking anyone. Plus, it was pure nonsense. Jack was doubtful, naturally, about this visitor and his prim and proper attire; but what truly flustered him was the mention of Elise. Jack had been introduced to most of her friends over the years, and this man hadn’t been among them.
Not dissuaded by the reticence, the stranger continued, “Look, I’m not here to hurt you. I need you to believe me.”
Something about that pissed him off. “No. I’m not going to believe anyone who waltzes into my room looking like they crawled out from the ass crack of a nuclear reactor,” Jack growled, unable to control himself.
“For the love of—look, Elise gave me this.” Reaching into the inside of his suit jacket, the man extracted something. Jack immediately thought it was a weapon of some sort, but when the palm opened up, his jaw dropped. It was a piece of fool’s gold. “Does this mean anything to you, Jack?”
It did, but he wasn’t willing to admit it. After their first encounter on that day of the double rainbow, Elise had jokingly called him a treasure, a pot of gold. Because of a terribly abusive childhood, Jack had never considered himself much more than a failure, so when she assigned such a precious value to him, it boosted his confidence. Still, he maintained a sardonic outlook on life and had given her that piece of fool’s gold one day, saying it was a piece of his heart for her to carry with her. Recalling that made him feel the need to cry again.
He sniffed then looked the stranger directly in those frozen eyes and asked, “Where is she? And who are you?”
“I’m Isaac, a programmer by trade, but that doesn’t matter, hmm? I can’t tell you what happened to Elise. Rules are rules. But I will tell you that she’s not entirely out of your reach,” supplied the man.
For a moment, Jack let this sink in. Elise wasn’t dead, just farther away than ever before. He watched Isaac make himself comfortable by pulling out the chair from the desk and sitting down with a huff. The glowing pattern on his skin was much more muted than Elise’s shine. Was that a sign of awakening?
Curious, Jack propped himself up on his elbows. “How do I do that? Wake up, I mean.”
“Now we’re asking the right questions,” said Isaac, clapping his hands together apathetically. Uncrossing his legs, the man shifted himself to face Jack more directly. “You need to figure it out on your own. What I can tell you is that clues are all around you. Elise wanted to accelerate your growth, but she was already decades ahead of you.” Isaac leaned as close as he could to Jack to whisper, “She’s such a clever soul, leaving notes and clues for you to use.”
Something about the way Isaac was speaking to him and the relationship he seemed to have with Elise made Jack want to put stock in what he was being fed. That said, he wasn’t some foolhardy teenager, either. He knew people could concoct elaborate scams, and if he was too hasty about how he reacted or what he put faith in, he’d be stripped of everything. Jack glanced over to Elise’s phone, wondering if that was meant to be one of the clues. There were other things, like her journals crammed with pictures, notes, and poetry. While he’d never sneaked a peek at the entries, he’d seen her work tirelessly to fill the pages with news clippings, dried flowers, feathers, sketches, and photos. She’d even brought one with her for their trip through Sweden and Finland, but it was brand new. There wouldn’t be much in there.
Am I really thinking about reading Elise’s diary because some glowing prick told me to?
Jack shot Isaac a pointed glance then looked back to their luggage. Two backpacks covered in pins and stickers. It sucked to confess, but he wanted to know what had been going on in Elise’s mind. He’d wait until he was alone again, though, to go digging.
“What else can you tell me?” inquired Jack.
Isaac put a hand atop the table and drummed his fingers, as if this question made him anxious. “That you’re close, so don’t lose faith. I’ll see you again, but for now, why don’t you put on some pants and see the city? Elise would have wanted you to enjoy it.”
In the blink of an eye, Isaac vanished, leaving a dissipating residual of his shining veins behind. Jack could only stare at the place where the man had sat, stupefied by what was happening in his life. On the table, the shard of pyrite gleamed.